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Stedman Bailey not giving up his dream of returning to the NFL

IRVINE, Calif. -- Stedman Bailey leaned over the railing, watching the Los Angeles Rams conduct practice on Sunday afternoon, and a singular thought consumed him.

"I feel like I should be out there," he said. "I know for a fact that I can make the 53-man roster right now. Like, somebody's job would be in trouble. That's just how I feel. Not to be cocky or anything, but it's that hunger; the hunger that I have. I know what I can do."

Bailey showed what he could do at West Virginia, where he racked up 210 catches for 3,218 yards and 41 touchdowns in a span of three years. He was just starting to show it with the Rams, shining on special teams and totaling 843 receiving yards over the course of 38 games (eight of them starts). But then Bailey suffered two gunshot wounds to the head on Nov. 24, 2015, while in the car with three family members in South Florida. He hasn't set foot on the field since.

He's lucky to be alive, but now he has other things on his mind.

"I miss the game so much," Bailey said. "I owe it to myself to give everything that I've got to get back on the field."

A third-round pick in 2013, Bailey is based in Moorpark, California, which neighbors Thousand Oaks, the site of the Rams' regular-season facility. He works out every day at a 24 Hour Fitness in nearby Simi Valley, and sometimes he has some help. He has run routes for Giants quarterback Geno Smith, his teammate in high school and college. He has trained with Tavon Austin, his teammate in college and in the NFL. And he has gone up against new Rams cornerback and childhood friend Kayvon Webster. Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes have trained with Bailey, too.

"I'm still pretty sharp," Bailey said, "and I'm pretty confident I can come out here and take somebody's spot.”

Despite his talent and resolve, Bailey is at the mercy of neurologists who fear that football will make him more susceptible to brain trauma. Bailey will have surgery again in two weeks -- his first since right after the incident -- and hopes to be cleared soon thereafter. It's an out-patient procedure, Bailey says, one he should fully recover from in a couple of days, making it far less grueling than the operation that saved his life. Bailey struggles with the details, but says doctors will remove some of the metal plates from his head and install a protective layer around his skull.

"Very hopeful," said Bailey, who's also taking online classes to finish his communications degree at West Virginia. "You've already seen a miracle of me surviving what I've been through."

Bailey believes he has another miracle in him. It involves stepping onto the field for an NFL game, a desire many around him consider impossible or unsafe. He wants to do it for his son, Stedman Bailey Jr., who turns 5 in November and was standing by his side on Sunday. Stedman Jr. is old enough to understand now; old enough to savor the sight of his father jogging out of the tunnel on Sundays. Bailey thinks about that constantly.

"He motivates me a lot," Bailey said. "And just people around the world who may be going through a bunch of life issues, personal issues, that they may feel like, 'Oh, I'll never be able to get through that.' I want to be a person that can show the world that you can make it through anything with faith and just continuing to work hard."

Bailey spent a lot of his Sunday signing autographs and posing for pictures with Rams fans who rooted for him prior to his injury and are rooting even harder for him now. He hugged cornerback Trumaine Johnson, toyed with safety Maurice Alexander and said hello to special teams coordinator John Fassel, with whom he's still close.

Bailey wants to play anywhere, but really, he wants to play for the Rams -- an organization that can always use some help at receiver.

"I'm hoping they have a better year," Bailey said, "and I'm hoping I can make my way back out here and contribute."